Books

Nnedi Okorafor Is Tired Of Labels

The writer’s latest novel, Noor, is in some ways her most personal yet.

Nnedi Okorafor with the cover of her book, 'Noor.'
Anyaugo Okorafor/Courtesy

For the first eight years of her writing career, Nnedi Okorafor kept her work private. The 47-year-old author shared only the bare minimum in workshops, ensuring her real stories stayed hidden from critical eyes. “In that time I was able to experiment — try things, see what worked, see what didn’t — without someone looking over my shoulder, like ‘Oh my God, that really is terrible!’” she tells Bustle. “Even if it was terrible, and I knew it was terrible.”

When Okorafor was finally ready to put her writing out into the world, starting with her 2005 novel Zahrah the Windseeker, she quickly began making up for lost time. In the 16 years since, she’s been recognized with the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, among many other prestigious honors. She’s published over two dozen books, graphic novels, and comics. (Not that she’s keeping track: “I really need to count my books, because I don’t even know what number it is,” the author says of her new release.) She’s in the process of adapting two of her own novels (Who Fears Death and Binti), and one of Octavia Butler’s (Wild Seed, from the Patternist series), for film and TV. And that’s not to mention all the projects she can’t talk about just yet.

But even while juggling all those projects — and the challenges of endearing her new kitten, Neptune, to her “very territorial” cat Periwinkle — she makes time to write for herself. “Prose is my playground,” she says. “No writing is like it.”

Okorafor’s latest prose work is Noor, her fourth novel for adults. Set in a near-future Nigeria where the lines between public and private, business and government, and synthetic and organic have begun to blur, the story follows AO and DNA, two people whose lives have been upended by seemingly incriminating viral videos. “This is all a lot to explain,” she laughs as she recounts the book’s themes. “This is why I wrote the book, because I’m not good at explaining, but I’m good at storytelling.” A knowledge of your strengths: a benefit, perhaps, of spending time alone with your writing.

Below, Okorafor talks about Africanfuturism, disability representation in science fiction, and her hatred of labels.

In the disability advocacy community, there’s a growing trend of people who identify as cyborgs. Did you have that in mind when you were writing AO?

Yes, I did. I had spinal surgery for severe scoliosis. It was supposed to be textbook normal, but I was one of the 1% who respond mysteriously with paralysis. That was a big turning point: I went from mega-athlete to paralyzed in a hospital bed.

So I have metal in my body — a large rod of metal latched to my spine. And after recovery, after literally learning how to walk again, I still have my own invisible disability. My balance is very bad. My proprioception — sometimes I don’t know where my feet are. These are things I live with every day.

I identify with that idea of viewing yourself as a cyborg. A lot of those ideas are what drive this story, the idea of accepting and knowing what you are and choosing to move through the world on your own terms. So like, I don’t regret having the surgery at all, because I know it was necessary even with those problematic complications. It’s not something where I’m lamenting every day about it. I mean, I do lament the difficulty, but I understand that it had to happen, and it was my choice to have the surgery. It was my choice.

AO’s disability seems inextricable from the story of Noor. Can you talk a little bit about publishing a book with a disabled protagonist at a time when we’re seeing a lot of disregard for the lives of disabled people?

It’s such a part of how I live that writing about this character was natural. Writing about her plight and her struggle, and her confidence in who she is and in her path ... to be her version of normal, not someone else’s. That’s really the standpoint I was coming from, the living of it. The conversation wasn’t a big part of the genesis of the story.

For me, it’s like, my disabilities are — most people don’t know them, most people can’t understand them. There’s no name for it, because it’s so specific. So I live it, and I can’t explain it. One of the reasons I wrote Broken Places & Outer Spaces was because I would do these events and they’d have stairs with no banister. It was so much to explain. They see me and they don’t see [my disability], but it’s something I live with every second. I got sick of explaining. I felt like, OK, if I wrote the book, people would see it and they’ll know.

So when I wrote this story, it was kind of like that. The experience of [living with disabilities] was very close to [AO]. AO is very much who she is in this world, and she’s not really engaged in the conversation around who she is. That’s part of what gets her into trouble. Someone who was more engaged with what’s going on would have been like, “Oh yeah, this is coming.”

Do you feel that AO’s story is closer to home than your other protagonists?

All of my protagonists are always close to me in some way. In this one, it was nice writing a character with disabilities. When I’ve written my other characters, it’s something that I think about. They’re leaping over stuff, and I know I can’t do that — even though [AO] has those augmentations that allow her to do a lot of things. The closeness was there. She was a refreshing character to write, in that regard.

We don’t see a lot of disability representation in speculative fiction. There’s the idea that magic or technology will eradicate disability. Did you get any pushback for writing this disabled protagonist in a sci-fi setting?

Not yet — it’s not out yet — but I’m expecting it and I get it. [Editor’s note: This conversation took place the week before Noor’s release.] But at the same time, I know my experience, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little wish fulfillment as well. I think a lot about body augmentations and that conversation: “Well, if I had the chance to get this, would I do it?” And I’m of the camp of, I totally would do it.

Even before I wrote Noor — I think of the engineer Hugh Herr, I’ve spoken to him before. He created these prosthetic limbs that are just freakin’ amazing. You should watch his TED Talk. He also has these exoskeletons for people who have trouble walking, or for people who can walk, and then they suddenly a lot more — walk miles and miles and not get tired. Ever since I saw those things, I was like, I would totally, totally wear those. And I told him that, too.

I remember when the film Avatar was out. There was a lot of discussion about the main character and how he could go into this new body. But for me, there’s that scene where he’s in his Avatar body for the first time, and he runs. That scene makes me cry every time I watch it. Every time.

Was there any particular message about disability and technology that you wanted readers to take away from the book?

I think the main one is to be what you are. I feel like the words can’t contain what I’m trying to say. It’s not like, [glumly] “Oh OK, well this thing’s happened to me, so I just accept it.” It’s not that, but [embracing it] with a confidence and understanding that you’re unique and this is your path.

AO is born with all of these issues, and she’s born within a culture that judges those things. That part is real, you know, I don’t want to call anyone out but that part is real. Like, “You were born this way so you must have done something” — someone is to blame, there’s something wrong with you. And then to have these augmentations, like, “How dare you try to be comfortable? How dare you try to find your own way through this? You just have to be. This is what was given to you.”

I think the main message is that confidence in being completely outside the norm, by definition — and that’s fine, and that’s good, and that’s yours.

You grew up in Chicago, and your parents were born in Nigeria. Chicago has more surveillance cameras than any other city in the United States, and there was a story published in Quartz recently about Nigeria and other nations using cyberespionage to spy on political dissenters. Did you have those things in mind when you were writing this near-future Nigeria?

Oh, most definitely. [Laughs.] All of that, from Chicago to Nigeria. I didn’t know that Chicago had the most surveillance, but that makes sense. Because since I moved to Phoenix, I’m flabbergasted by the lack of surveillance.

There’s one story I wrote where — because I’ve been yelling about this forever — teenagers and kids started targeting and hacking into those surveillance cameras and just messing with them. I’m like, “Where are the teens?! Aren’t they supposed to be doing something?” [Laughs.] That’s their job, mess with that stuff! Please!

So that definitely influenced the world of Noor, and then also Nigeria’s “cybercide.” It’s all in there. That global sense of surveillance and growing corporate influence — that all went right into Noor.

Noor reminds us that narratives are still being manipulated against people in marginalized communities. Do you think that going viral is a double-edged sword for people who want to use that technology to protect themselves and their communities?

Yeah. Narratives always are. It’s like [the game] “Telephone.” When you boil it all down, it’s the idea that the narratives are getting out and causing conversation.

As you’re saying, stories can always be manipulated ... This idea of truth, it’s subjective but it can also be easily corrupted. And it’s not just about manipulating the narrative, it’s also about where you cut the narrative. It’s both fascinating and terrifying, and it is a double-edged sword. But would I want [the technology] to not exist? No, because it’s a powerful tool. I’m glad it exists. We can already see the positives.

Kirkus Reviews said that Noor “defined” Africanfuturism, which you’ve spent a lot of time distinguishing Africanfuturism from Afrofuturism. How do you feel about being held up as the spokesperson or “poster child” for Africanfuturism?

Tired. [Laughs.] I’m so tired.

First of all, I’m the last person who harps on labels. I hate labels. I find them confining — I’m like, “What if I want to do something else and people just keep asking me about [Africanfuturism]?” I can’t stand labels. Before I was writing, as a reader, I would go to the library and I wouldn’t look at the labels. That’s how I ended up reading Stephen King’s It when I was 12.

Coining the term Africanfuturism and its definition, it was a necessary thing. That’s how necessary it was — for me to do that, when I don’t even like discussing labels. Every story is different and doing its own thing; why do we have to talk about labels? But without giving [Africanfuturism] a name, it was not being understood. That can happen sometimes, where a concept does not exist in people’s minds unless you give it a name.

Being the strongest voice — but oftentimes the only voice — is frustrating, because people want me to start labeling other people. “Well, do you think this is Africanfuturism?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I don’t do that. I just gave you the definition, and do with it what you will. But apply it to my work, because this is what I’m saying I write, and this is why, and please understand that.

It is exhausting, because I feel like people get more wrapped up in picking things apart than broadening things. When you reduce something to make it fit in a certain box, all the things that don’t fit get left out and ignored, and those things are important, too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.